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'The government needs to get a backbone': Fishers meet with Minister McConalogue after protest

Minister Charlie McConalogue has announced a tour of ports and harbours over the next few months to hear fishers’ concerns.

Image: RollingNews.ie

Updated Jun 23rd 2021, 4:15 PM

IRISH FISHERMEN HAVE gathered in Dublin city centre this morning as part of a protest to raise awareness of the challenges their industry faces – with the renegotiation of quotas in Irish waters and the protection of coastal communities among their concerns.

A flotilla of 50 vessels travelled up the River Liffey in the early hours of this morning, passing through the East Link Toll Bridge and berthing at John Rodgerson Quay.

An estimated 500-600 fishermen and women and their supporters, marched from there to Guild St Park at Spencer Dock, next to the makeshift Dáil at the National Convention Centre.

A list of demands were handed in to Taoiseach Micheál Martin at around 1.30pm by children at the protest.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue met with industry reps after receiving their list of demands.

Following the meeting, the Minister said the talks were “constructive”, and called for “continued engagement with the industry”.

The Minister also today committed to visiting ports and harbours and meet with fishers and coastal communities on a tour of Ireland over the coming months.

What protesting fishers have to say

Fishermen have been raising their concerns about their industry since a Brexit trade deal was signed before Christmas that was seen to seriously disadvantage the Irish fishing sector; and a recent EU ruling that means fish need to be weighed on piers.

“The greatest thing that is required for the fishing industry is for the government to develop a backbone and a willingness to fight at European level to save the Irish fishing industry from decimation,” Brendan Byrne of the Irish Fish Processors & Exporters Association told The Journal this morning.

“That’s the one element that’s consistently missing over the last 48 years of our membership of the EU. We’re completely subservient to every rule, regulation or guideline that has ever come from the European Union.

“And successive governments have failed to recognise the true potential of the Irish fishing industry.”

Liam O’Sullivan, said to be the last fisherman in Fenit, Co Kerry, also explained that the industry in his area had been in decline for the past two decades.

“When they got rid of salmon fishing, it was the worst thing that happened the south-west coast of Ireland,” he said.

“Every young fella used to go salmon fishing during the summer, that’s how they were introduced into fishing.”

O’Sullivan explained that in one village where there used to be up to 80 fishing boats, there are now only two or three in operation.

Mark, the skipper of the Vigilance vessel in Killybegs, says “we’re being regulated out of existence”. 

In response to the protest today, the Minister for Agriculture said in a statement:

“The Government and I stand with our fishers and we continue to welcome all engagement with fishers, their representatives and with coastal communities, I welcome fisher representatives to the Department today to hear their concerns in person.”

The statement added that the Minister is pursuing “every opportunity” at EU level to increase the available quotas for Ireland’s fishing fleet.

What do fishers want

Many fishers at the protest spoke about wanting a dedicated Minister for the Marine, rather than the portfolio being shared alongside Agriculture and Food portfolios.

Some want the Brexit trade deal revisited, others accept that this is a done deal, but ask that the Common Fisheries Policy, which is up for renewal shortly, be used to get a better deal for Irish fishers.

The two main organisers of the protest today, and the co-signatories of the list of demands, John Lynch from Howth in Dublin and Patrick Murphy from Bantry in Co Cork, told The Journal that the industry has been neglected for years. 

Lynch, who has been a fisherman for nearly 40 years, is now acting CEO of the Irish South and East Fish Producers Organisation.

“Some boats are tied up for long periods due to a lack of quota, bigger boats could be tied up six months of the year.”

“The Brexit and the withdrawal of the weighing derogation were the two straws that really broke the camel’s back. Brexit took away 15% of our already minimal quotas, and that’s a really hard blow to the industry. It equated to 25% of the industry’s income. So that’s every year forevermore – that fish is gone to the UK.

“Around the Irish coast, we only have 7.5% of the monkfish quota, and in hake, we only have 3%, so it’s very low.”

The EU granted €180 million fish to the UK as part of the Brexit trade deal, and out of that €180 million, Ireland had to give €43 million worth of fish. We consider that to be unfair. Ireland would have only gifted €20 million worth of fish to the UK.

Fishermans protest 001 The flotilla protest today. Source: Leah Farrell

Murphy is the CEO of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation. When asked why over years of neglect, fishers were organising marches now, he said:

“If you’re embarrassed about something, and you’re ashamed about something, you don’t really want to talk about it. So fishing has been the poor relation of the agri-industries of this country, so I think there’s a bit of guilt there that makes them easier to target.”

Because the quotas are much lower than they used to be, fishing over the allocated quotas can be easily done. 

The issue of non-EU migrant workers in the fishing industry was also raised, where they haven’t the same protections after working in the country for a number of years. Two Filipino fishermen who have worked in Ireland for a number of years spoke to the rally about how they need better rights afforded to them to stay in the country.

Murphy said that the industry is blamed for the poor working conditions of migrant workers, when it’s a case of non-EU/EEA workers not being afforded the same rights as EU citizens.

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The two final straws: Weighing fish on piers,and Brexit

The European Commission found that Irish authorities didn’t have a proper plan in place for weighing catches at factories, and that the weighing system was being manipulated by some, which means that fish now must be weighed quay-side – something that fishermen and women strongly object to.

One fisherman told The Journal last month that rules mean fishermen are “scraping the ice” off fish before they are weighed on the pier, sometimes on a hot day and with seagulls defecating on the pier, which they say could lower the quality of the catch.

The Brexit trade deal has also raised a two-fold problem for Irish fishermen:

  • Fishermen have fewer waters to fish in. 64% of Ireland’s largest fishery, mackerel, and 43% of our second biggest fishery, prawns, is caught in UK waters
  • With the UK off limits, they are concerned that EU vessels, such as Spanish, French and Dutch fleets, will start to appear in Irish waters to compete.

There are also other challenges their industry faces: the viability of the small-boat-based Irish fishing industry is seen as under threat by bigger vessels from other countries and corporations; and the new rules and standards needed for environmental sustainability.

A Government taskforce was set up in January to deal with the future of the Irish fishing sector, which was pushed for in the aftermath of the Brexit trade deal by Cork TD Christopher O’Sullivan. It is aiming to look at the sustainability of the fishing industry – but there are already concerns among fishermen that it may not go far enough.

Last month, a flotilla of around 60 fishing vessels from around Ireland travelled up the River Lee to deliver a letter of demands to Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s office in Cork.

With reporting from Garreth MacNamee and Maria Delaney

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